On August 29, 2003 at the Telluride Film Festival, Sofia Coppola unveiled her second feature-length film about an aging movie star who goes to Tokyo to shoot a whiskey commercial as he meets a married young woman as they both endure loneliness and uncertainty in the city. The film was called Lost in Translation as it would also make its mark some days later at the 60th Venice Film Festival as well as the Toronto Film Festival around that same month. Then on September 12 on that same year, the film began its limited run in the U.S. where nine days later, I saw the film for the very first time at the AMC Phipps Plaza Theatre near Lenox Square at the Buckhead area in Atlanta where I saw the film for the first of three theatrical viewings.
I paid $8 for a 7:05 PM screening not really sure what I was going to expect as my only interest in the film was the fact that it was something different. It was directed by Sofia Coppola whose first film The Virgin Suicides that I liked and it would feature music by Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine which I was getting into at the time. I would see the film again at the same theater on October 18 at a 9:45 PM and for the third time at the now defunct Lefont Theatre at Buckhead on Christmas Eve of that year. I don’t know why I decided to see the film three times in the theater as I had never saw a film in the theaters more than once with the exception of Ladybugs back in 1992 (I was 11 years old, what was I thinking? Yet, I still have a soft spot for Rodney Dangerfield).
I would see the film every September 21st as it was that day I saw the film as it was also Bill Murray’s birthday as I made it an annual tradition. For me, it is the best film ever made. Why would I say it’s the best film ever made? Well, I can give 10 reasons why it is my all-time favorite film. Criterion Collection always have 3 reasons into why a certain film belongs in their library. Here are my 10 reasons for why Lost in Translation is the best film ever made:
1. Its Sensitive Portrait of Alienation & Not Knowing
Part of Sofia Coppola’s running theme with pretty much all of her films has been the idea of alienation and identity as she creates characters who are quite disconnected in one way or another. In this film, it’s about people who are definitely lost in their life. For Bill Murray’s Bob Harris, he is at a point where his career is winding down while his marriage is definitely on the rocks as he realizes he forgot his son’s birthday which makes him feel like shit. For Scarlett Johansson’s Charlotte, she’s a young woman who had just graduated from Yale but has no idea what to do next as she has no clue why she’s married. As they’re both in Japan, the sense of alienation becomes very deep for both characters that includes one of Coppola’s most mesmerizing shots of Charlotte sitting next to the window gazing at the city of Tokyo.
2. Its Humorous Take of Cultural Confusing and Mistranslation
The concept of Americans spending some time in Japan definitely brings up a lot of things that might happen. Here is where the film’s title comes into play in not just some of its humorous moments but also in some dramatic elements. The most notable scene is Bob Harris being directed by a Japanese filmmaker for the commercial where the director is talking in Japanese while the translator would only say “turn to camera with more intensity”. It’s a moment that is baffling as it’s clear that Harris is aware he’s been given more instructions than what his translator told him. Another scene that is very funny is when a prostitute is sent as a gift for Harris as she tells him to rip her stocking which he misinterprets as “lip them”. The sense of mistranslation and confusion would play into a very evocative scene of Bill and Charlotte talking in bed where Charlotte asks why do the Japanese switch the “r” and “l”.
3. Redefining the May-December Romance
Most films based on the May-December romance scenario often has an element of creepiness depending on who is cast. This film not only redefined that scenario but add something that would make it unconventional and engaging. Notably as it plays into the lives of two lost souls in an aging actor in his 50s and an uncertain woman in her 20s where they basically just talk and have fun. There’s no sex or anything that is expected in romantic films. Instead, the conversations lean on towards something that is existential as well as personal where both Bob and Charlotte express their frustrations with marriage as the former comes to the realization that it has indeed lost its romance.
4. The Beauty that is Japan
If there’s one character in the film that is just as important as Bob and Charlotte, it’s Japan from the city of Tokyo to the ravishing sequence of Charlotte in Kyoto. Through the naturalistic yet rapturous photography of Lance Acord, the city of Tokyo never looked any better nor as intimidating for the way it plays into Bob and Charlotte’s isolation. The shots set at night including that amazing sequence of Bob and Charlotte coming home from the karaoke onto the Rainbow Bridge at night are among the most exquisite that is later matched by the Kyoto sequence where it aims for naturalistic camera work as opposed to the more post-card look of Hollywood-driven films.
5. Kevin Shields’ Return to the Music World & Its Rapturous Soundtrack
For anyone who had paid attention to the indie music world, there was always the question of who would make the big return to the world of music. My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields would make his return with some new music for the first time in over a decade in contributing three amazing instrumental pieces and the song City Girl which is practically one of the most underrated songs of the 2000s. Yet, the film’s soundtrack is filled with an amazing array of artists as diverse as Phoenix, Happy End, Sebastien Tellier, Squarepusher, Death in Vegas, the Jesus & Mary Chain, Shields’ My Bloody Valentine, and Air. Ranging from indie-pop, noise-pop, Japanese folk, and ambient music. The film’s soundtrack from the supervision of Brian Reitzell just adds to the exotic quality of the film.
6. Bill Murray
Everyone knows Bill Murray as one of the funniest actors ever. Then in 1993, something new was emerging in Murray with Groundhog Day where he displayed some dramatic range that later lead to some great collaborations with Wes Anderson and Jim Jarmusch. In this film, Murray exudes a man who is coming to the end of career where Murray adds this melancholia that is unexpected. He does have moments where’s funny but in the most subtle of ways from the way he engages in conversation with Charlotte to the his reactions of his surroundings. Yet, it is that element of sadness in the character of Bob Harris over the way he deals with a crumbling marriage and the fact that he’s not a good husband or father as it adds a great amount of weight into Murray’s performance.
7. Scarlett Johansson
Playing a 25-year old graduate at the age of 17, Scarlett Johansson’s performance as Charlotte was truly unlike anything. Especially for someone at that age and having been acting for almost a decade at that time. Yet, Johansson just adds this very evocative quality to her performance in the way she can express so much by doing so little in such moments as her visits to Buddhist temples and Kyoto as well as being the comfortable foil for Murray. Johansson also has this melancholia as she plays a woman with no sense of direction as well as someone who is alienated by the world like other Coppola protagonists as the Lisbon sisters in The Virgin Suicides and the titular character in Marie Antoinette. Yet, Johansson added something that was very adult to her character as well as a sense of hope in Coppola’s lost-woman trilogy.
8. Making Karaoke Cool Again
Karaoke for a time stopped being cool because people were either singing very bad songs or were singing very badly as it stopped being fun. Thankfully, it would take Coppola, Murray, Johansson, Brian Reitzell, Roger Joseph Manning Jr., and some Japanese actors to make it cool again. Not only in the song choices ranging from the Sex Pistols, Elvis Costello, the Pretenders, and Roxy Music but also having fun with them. Yet, it’s Murray’s rendition of Roxy Music’s More Than This that really steals the moment as it’s Murray just singing it straight where it is also very moving to display that even karaoke can make someone connect with another person.
9. Sofia Coppola’s Ethereal Direction
Only a filmmaker like Sofia Coppola would create a film that has a lot of visual beauty mixed in with startling images that conveys something real. From the way she presents Tokyo as something that is very foreign to Western audiences to the sense of intimacy that is captured in the Hyatt Hilton Hotel in Tokyo. With its use of hand-held cameras to capture the chaos of the Shibuya cross way as well as the trademark shots of sunlight gazing over nature and cars being shown outside in a close-up. It’s definitely the work of someone who is finally creating her own language as a filmmaker as it would evolve in her subsequent films as it would make her one of the best filmmakers working today.
10. The Mystery Over Its Ending
The film’s ending remains one of the great endings in film but also its most mysterious. Largely as it plays to Bob Harris leaving Tokyo as he sees Charlotte walking into the streets as he goes after her to say one final farewell. It’s a very touching moment that is captured with great simplicity but it’s what Bob whispers to Charlotte that to this day, has many wondering what he told her. What did Bob whisper to Charlotte? The only thing that was heard clearly was the last word in “OK”. They kiss and part as Bob leaves to return to the U.S. while Charlotte takes one last glimpse of him as she walks into the streets of Tokyo as the music of the Jesus & Mary Chain plays through that is followed by a montage of the highways and buildings of Tokyo.
To Bill, Scarlett, Sofia, and all of those who worked on the film and helped it make it one of the best films ever. Domo arigato. Ten years since it came out to the theaters all over the world, it’s still as exotic as ever. Yet, if there’s one way to close this piece on the film. I think it’s best if we let Mr. Bob Harris say these parting words…
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